Why the Congressional Research Service Matters

In our January/February issue of the Washington Monthly, former research analyst for the Congressional Research Service, Kevin Kosar, explains why dysfunction on Capitol Hill led him to leave the job he loved and go to work for the R Street Institute, a self-described “free-market think tank” of the political right “with a pragmatic approach to public policy challenges.”

As Mr. Kosar helpfully explains, the Congressional Research Office has been around for over a hundred years, now.

Congress established the agency in 1914, at the urging of Senator Robert La Follette Sr. and other progressives. It was born of the now-obvious but then-radical notion that governing a modern nation-state was complex business, and elected officials needed good information to make sensible policy decisions. The CRS began as a small, unnamed operation lodged within the Library of Congress, limited to compiling digests of legislation and other legislative clerk-type duties. It was staffed with civil servants, often with library science training, who tracked down useful facts and figures at Congress’s request. Congress grew the agency in 1946 and made it into a policy shop. The new Legislative Reference Service was directed to hire public policy experts who could help committees analyze policy proposals. The LRS also collected data and published reports in anticipation of congressional need, in addition to continuing its bill digest and reference duties.

In response to the growth of an “imperial presidency,” Congress beefed up the agency even further. The LRS became the Congressional Research Service in 1970, and was staffed up. If the president had policy muscle in the form of the Office of Management and Budget and other executive-branch agencies, Congress would have a mighty CRS, along with the newly created Congressional Budget Office.

The CRS is still housed in the Library of Congress, and over the years it has developed its own culture in which “objectivity is next to godliness.” Unfortunately, a confluence of factors have conspired to undermine that culture.

As Kosar explains, the CRS has suffered budget cuts and loss of personnel at the same time that it has been flooded with requests from members of Congress to help them respond to inquiries from constituents. They have fewer people to do a lot more work, and much of the work is unrelated to their core mission.

Getting diverted from their mission is one problem, but a more serious one is that their claim to “objectivity” has come under attack, mainly from conservatives who haven’t liked their answers.

That environment changed abruptly in 2006. That year, Louis Fisher made comments to a reporter about the limitations of the whistle-blower protection law. It ought to have been a shrug-worthy comment, especially as the facts indicated that agencies defeated whistle-blowers in court almost every time. But someone in Congress took offense and complained. A media circus ensued, and the Internet lit up with anger. In the end, the agency transferred Fisher out of his job and into another agency within the Library of Congress. We had lost a valuable and productive colleague. Congressional requests that would have gone to him were routed to others at the CRS with much less experience.

The CRS’s blood was in the water, and more attacks came. Many of us were particularly shocked when Michigan Representative Pete Hoekstra, then chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, rebuked the agency. A CRS expert had written a confidential memorandum on wiretapping, concluding that the executive branch probably had not given Congress as much notification as the law required. Hoekstra told the CRS that it had no business writing about the topic. It was remarkable: the CRS’s expert had warned Congress that the executive branch might be taking advantage of the legislature, and a powerful member of Congress had essentially replied, “Shut up.”

This actually led to a remarkable development. Whereas CRS reports had historically been constructed with a “Conclusions” section at the end, management discouraged and (for a time) discontinued this practice. Having a “conclusion” was now considered a dangerous introduction of subjectivity that could arouse the ire of Congress (most likely, Republican members of Congress) and cause a further loss of funding. Reports were summarized with a more neutral “Observations” section in which authoritative statements were stricken.

As editor in chief Paul Glastris writes in his Editor’s Note, with modern progressives there is an almost “complete lack of attention being paid…to public administration and government structure,” whereas the original progressives “put tremendous stake in the design, functioning, and reform of government bureaucracies and of the broader political economy.”

The Congressional Research Office is one of the crown jewels of the original Progressive Movement, and when it is weakened and undermined it is a threat to the good government we seek. As Mr. Kosar demonstrates, you don’t have to be a progressive Democrat to feel the loss. Regardless of your ideological proclivities, you should be able to agree that Congress needs an outfit of experts that can help them answer complicated questions without fear that their answers will cause retribution. Otherwise, Congress is flying blind.

Having worked there for many years, Mr. Kosar has many suggestions for how to restore and improve the performance of the CRS, and it’s a subject that should interest anyone who thinks Congress can and should do important things, and do them well.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.